Police sector: Returning to duty during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic

Author: Virginia Matthews

We look at how the police service is bringing returners back into its workforce to help support policing needs during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson's pledge to swell police officer numbers by 20,000 by the end of March 2023 has already produced results, with over 3,000 new officers having joined the force, according to quarterly Home Office figures released at the end of April 2020.

Among the new recruits are many retired officers who have responded to appeals from forces looking to bring back specialist expertise and bolster numbers during the coronavirus pandemic.

New fast-track onboarding procedures, which will remain in place for the remainder of 2020, have been introduced to propel returning retirees and other recruits to the frontline rapidly, for a variety of postings linked to knife and other violent crime, fraud, drugs offences, domestic abuse and public order.

While rehire data for the service as a whole is still being collated, a spokesperson for the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) said it expected to make an announcement on retiree take-up numbers "within weeks".

Industrial-scale recruitment

On 30 April 2020, the College of Policing - the professional body for the force in England and Wales - announced a package of measures to help accelerate onboarding for all new and returning officers.

... forces need to get people back onto their staff and onto the streets as soon as possible ...

Chief Constable Cunningham, College of Policing

These include, for the first time, virtual panel interviews together with emergency training to cover gaps in knowledge. Biometric vetting, where DNA and fingerprint samples are routinely taken from officers to help eliminate them from crime scenes and flag any previous connection with crime, will continue, but with an emphasis on self-sampling under supervision.

The College's new techniques, developed in haste on the back of the Prime Minister's announcement that the UK was to go into lockdown, will help facilitate what College chief executive officer Mike Cunningham describes as "recruitment on an industrial scale".

"In the light of both the current coronavirus crisis and the Government's pledge to significantly boost officer numbers between now and 2023, forces need to get people back onto their staff and onto the streets as soon as possible," says Chief Constable Cunningham.

No compromise on quality

"As the service's professional standards body, we need to be seen to be helping [forces] achieve this in the most practical ways possible. Our new arrangements, already in trial phase in a number of forces, will accelerate the recruitment and onboarding process from the usual months to weeks, even days, without any compromise in the calibre of officers."

With the majority of returnees, he believes, "likely to need only a small amount of refresher training before they are ready to return to duty," the new measures will also include emergency training in police powers, ethics and protecting the vulnerable for student officers keen to begin work.

Related resources

The College is collaborating closely with the NPCC, on a roll-out programme aimed at equipping all 43 forces in England and Wales with the new onboarding procedures.

Chief Constable Cunningham believes that the temporary relaxation in tax rules on pension income, designed to help remove barriers to returning public-sector workers who have recently retired, may also "play a significant role" in encouraging former officers to return.

Met takes the lead

With more than 44,000 officers and staff in its ranks, London's Metropolitan Police is the biggest force in the country.

At the end of March, Met Commissioner Cressida Dick wrote to all former constables and sergeants who had retired from the force within the past five years to ask them to consider rejoining, on a full- or part-time basis, and to commit to doing this for a minimum of six months. She also requested that those with close to 30 years' pensionable service delay their retirement until the coronavirus crisis is over. Those who retired at the rank of inspector or above were asked to consider being sworn in as members of the Met's Special Constabulary, committing to at least 16 hours' service a month.

Within days, more than 330 former officers had responded positively to the Commissioner's call to action and the first "returners" began their bespoke training at the Hendon Police College on 6 April.

Speedy vetting

The process of being rehired by the Met begins with a simple online form and is followed by a fast-track medical assessment. All fast-track returners must be sponsored by a current member of the force. Those retirees who rejoin without already having up-to-date training undergo a package of refresher courses, including officer safety training and emergency life support.

... no obvious cultural clashes between retirees and the current workforce ...

Metropolitan Police

A spokesperson for the Met said that there had been "no obvious cultural clashes between retirees and the current workforce" so far, and attributed this to the fact that that the majority of former officers to have returned to duty have been within two years of their retirement. She added that most returning officers have been processed, onboarded and back on the beat within two weeks of applying.

Other forces follow

Commissioner Dick's appeal in late March was swiftly echoed by other forces, among them South Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Kent and Greater Manchester.

Hampshire Constabulary says it hopes to "hear specifically from any former officers, PCSOs, contact management centre officers/control room operators, detention officers or police staff investigators". However, its approach to rehiring is cautious.

Resilience first

"We are currently in the process of gathering the information from volunteers to establish their skills and where they can be appropriately utilised," says a spokesperson for the Hampshire force, "but have not yet recruited or deployed anyone. Once we have further information from the enquirers, we will be scoping further work to establish exactly which departments across the force require the most assistance and help in order to remain resilient and will contact volunteers accordingly ... We will be processing the applications as quickly as we can."

While Chief Constable Cunningham from the College of Policing congratulates the Met Commissioner for "the sheer speed of her response to the pandemic and its potential impact on the policing of the capital", the pace of rehiring by each force will, he says, be dictated both by current headcounts and local policing challenges.

"Forces must remain resilient, not just for now but well into the unlock and recovery phase," he says. "Each one has a different challenge in maintaining that essential resilience."

Covering sickness absence

For the Met, which has in the past recorded absence rates of 20%, it was "abundantly clear," he says, that "London would urgently need an injection of officers to help deal with the potential new challenges to policing the capital".

While the speed with which the Met "has managed to get officers back on the streets" is, he says, "a good example for other forces to follow," he stresses that each force must make its own decisions regarding rehiring.

"Chief constables must calculate how many extra bodies they need in order to remain resilient in key areas such as violent crime and drug dealing and, as always, more experienced officers are incredibly welcome at briefings and on the streets."

"At a time when sickness absence across all forces has now dropped to 10%, the possible challenges around covering for colleagues who may be self-isolating is thus far not proving as severe as we had feared."

Specialist skills

While NPCC data indicates that overall crime rates have fallen by 28% since the pandemic, new tactics around fraud, drug dealing, cyber crime and online child sex abuse are coming to the fore, according to the National Crime Agency.

Yet it is the 700% increase in visits to its helpline website, highlighted by Refuge, the UK's largest charity against domestic violence, that may be ringing the loudest alarm bells.

... the specialist skills of many retirees in this area will be highly sought after ...

Chief Constable Cunningham, College of Policing

"All chief constables will be prioritising the investigation of domestic abuse at the moment and the specialist skills of many retirees in this area will be highly sought after," says Chief Constable Cunningham.

And once lockdown is over? "It's easy to see the extra demand for retired officers solely in the context of coronavirus but there is also a fierce political will to boost police numbers for the long term too."

"I have no doubt that many of the officers who choose to return to the force, or to delay their retirement in order to support their colleagues in the pandemic, will decide to remain with the police service for a long time to come."